By Elisabeth Paymal
If indeed “planning is everything,” then what makes planning successful? As we reflect on the impact of the first three years of the Washtenaw County's Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, we recall the original plan informed by Washtenaw County’s Community Mental Health Advisory Council (CMHAC)—a plan that has now impacted the lives of thousands of county residents through new services and initiatives. We also introduce and describe new and continued millage priorities for the next five years.
First, let’s put the millage back in its original context
The millage was passed with a two-to-one margin by Washtenaw County residents in November 2017 and came in response to significant state funding cuts for mental health services. Many local leaders were deeply concerned about the impact of the mental health budget cuts and began discussions about how to remedy the situation.
“I think that the human need and the desire to improve the human condition around mental health was really the force that got the millage to pass,” explains Andy LaBarre, chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners in 2017, who was instrumental in putting the millage on the ballot.
After the millage did pass, by a two-to-one margin, Washtenaw County’s Board of Commissioners appointed a diverse array of experts from local organizations to the Community Mental Health Advisory Council (CMHAC), which immediately began to assess the County’s mental health and judicial needs.
The council listened and gathered broad community input about pressing concerns and where millage funding was most needed. The committee also reviewed information from a countywide mental health and substance use gaps analysis from the Center for Health and Research Transformation (CHRT).
Based on this information, in 2018, CMHAC published a series of recommendations designed to respond to Washtenaw County’s main priorities for the first three years of millage funding. The report described 11 priority investment areas that covered service expansion, criminal justice diversion, youth support services, and education and prevention.
From 2019 to 2021, Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) administrators have rigorously and effectively implemented the CMHAC plan. WCCMH has also monitored and adapted the plan with additional research and community conversations.
A few highlights from a long list of high-impact millage investments
Many millage-funded initiatives aim at expanding services while offering a better integration between them—in turn, streamlining processes and leveraging resources.
LaBarre points to two rare attributes of the millage: its flexibility, which allows it to quickly respond to emerging needs, and its ability to leverage other funding sources through further collaborations. LaBarre also salutes the leadership of Washtenaw County Community Mental Health, the Sheriff’s Office, and all the millage partners for their collaborative spirit, creative thinking, and dedication to the community’s health and safety.
Many millage initiatives have helped improve access to care. For example, the millage funds a 24/7 crisis line that serves as a single point-of-entry to centralize information and connect between care services.
The millage has also alleviated wait times for people in need of services. To achieve this, more mental health professionals have been hired—including psychiatrists, psychotherapists, nurses, social workers, peer support specialists, and case managers.
Furthermore, the millage has expanded into previously underserved geographic areas. More comprehensive services are now available in rural communities. Some health care options have been added to existing centers to consolidate and improve treatments.
The connection between mental health, substance use, and the justice system is being addressed with training and more coordination between local agencies. This collaborative approach has had tremendous success, with new and enhanced diversion options. By defusing situations and addressing root causes, our community is reducing costly and unnecessary jail time for individuals who are instead getting connected to treatment.
Schools are also helping destigmatize mental health issues with more staff, training, and programs related to mental health.
The millage’s plan has also demonstrated its flexibility and adaptation to the pandemic.
Safe housing and social distancing were keys to preventing the spread of the virus, yet dozens of individuals experiencing homelessness relied on local shelters and communal spaces. With millage and funding, and many other sources of funding, hoteling these individuals provided them with safe spaces. The hotels also facilitated residents’ access to services.
The next five years: continuing what works and strengthening youth services
Stakeholder feedback, surveys, and rigorous monitoring have identified multiple areas of need that will be addressed over the next several years with millage funds. According to Lisa Gentz, program administrator for millage initiatives, a massive effort will be made toward supporting youth with access to care, as well as strengthening partnerships with schools, housing, and intervention strategies.
“Youth who were fragile, but managing, can no longer cope with the additional COVID-related stress,” she explains.
Some of the key issues recognized by both WCCMH and Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) leaders include drug use, isolation, and depression. Students of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+ also experience more isolation and are at higher risk of experiencing mental health issues. An increase in psychiatric hospitalizations and deaths by overdose or suicide has also been reported.
This year, the millage implementation plan will explore the feasibility of a comprehensive youth assessment center and establishing first contact programs that focus on prevention. The youth assessment center would take a holistic approach, considering different dimensions in one’s life, such as family and relationships, mental and physical health, education, career, and housing.
The county will also collaborate with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) on support and education programs for parents. “Parents don’t know where to get their kids help and there is a lot of shame,” explained Gentz. “They turn to schools and it’s very challenging for educators to provide mental health care. We need the millage funding to help our youth and their families.”
Many activities from the last three years will also be continued, such as criminal justice diversion through mental health assessment and referrals to care, and support for isolated older adults, and, in particular, those who live in rural areas.
This spring, the Millage Advisory Committee will release its plan with detailed financial allocations for approval by the Board of Commissioners.
For more information, visit our millage impact page and read our annual reports